My Mad Men era childhood vacations were often spent visiting the past.
On weekends and school holidays I traipsed through countless creaky old historical houses of men who helped make America great, curiously observed colonial cobblers and blacksmiths hard at work and listened attentively to genteel suburbanites dressed in period costumes explain history.
Through the years I saw more than my share of the thousands of granite, bronze and marble monuments and statues that dotted the American landscape that helped shape popular perspectives of the past.
Loaded with assumptions and silences, the often sanitized, selective, historical narrative presented at all these places permeated the country, the classroom, and historic sites during mid-century America.
When it came to American history no place was loaded with more excitement or education than my visits to Gettysburg Pennsylvania. Certainly no National Park offered more bang for your buck per square foot when it came to monuments and statues honoring our soldiers and generals. And too, no place had a more romanticized cast swept over it than Gettysburg did during the Centennial of the Civil War celebration.
In 1961 Americans caught Centennial fever and so did my family. Even as Americans raced forward into the New Frontier, we took time out to travel back and celebrate our past.
I Wish I Were In Dixie
For southerners, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War was a chance to unfurl the Confederate battle flags, wax poetically over the heroism of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and romanticize the resistance to Federal power.
The “Lost Cause” was still the dominant story, and in this Gone with the Wind version, the southern gentlemen fought valiantly against a stronger (and less scrupulous) northern army and their noble aim was to protect states’ rights and a gracious way of life. Slaves were portrayed as contented and loyal, if discussed at all.
That peculiar institution had seamlessly been replaced by Jim Crow.
Reunited and It Feels So Good
The War that had once been bitterly referred to as “The War of Rebellion” or the “War of Yankee Aggression” had for several generations now been firmly re-branded as the more friendly sounding “War Between Brothers.”
In this more sentimental reconciliatory light of Brother Against Brother, important lessons could be taught about the common bonds of bravery and patriotism on both sides. Treason was barely uttered. Schoolbooks taught us that the War Between the State’s struggle had allowed the nation to emerge into “the bright sunshine of freedom.”
Of course that sunshine still did not shine for all.
The Selling of The Civil War
Reconciliation sold a lot better than racial recrimination and the Civil War Centennial was a hot commodity in the early 1960’s.
Books and toys flooded the market, public service announcements abounded and every newspaper and magazine was flooded with pictures and commemorative stories about the Civil War.
Seated in the comfort of your Laz-E Boy recliner you could listen to the stirring history of the War Between the States told in music, sounds and photos and illustration thanks to Columbia Records that produced a special linen bound Centennial collectors’ album. For the mere price of $1.97 you could find yourself “Whistling Dixie” in the midst of a bloody battlefield at Chancellorsville.
Kiddies could ditch their baseball cards and collect a set of Civil War bubble gum trading cards memorializing the great war. Who wanted Mickey Mantle when you could have Ulysses S. Grant?
Tourism to visit Civil War landmarks was booming, really heating up in the summer. Battlefields replaced beaches as part of easy breezy summer living. No mid-century vacation was complete without a visit to a Civil War battlefield.
Since Gettysburg was ground zero for Civil War Centennial remembrance, early on Monday July 1, my family loaded up our Plymouth and headed down to Gettysburg that summer of 1963 in time for the 100th anniversary of that conflicts most celebrated and bloodiest battle.
Arriving in Gettysburg on the very day the two armies met and the great battle began, the town was exploding with tourists.
The Civil War was packaged in easy to understand stories and fun activities.
Pageants, re-enactments and parades filled the week. Souvenirs abounded. I could buy “real” civil war bullets for 30 cents, stock up on Confederate money which to my disappointment would do me no good on purchasing all these goodies, all while snacking greedily on pecans purchased at a Stuckeys built on the battlefield where the second day of fighting raged at Peach Orchard, site of a famous civil war battle.
I’m Just Saying
The local shops displayed banners paying tribute to the Blue and Grey Americans “all who were fighting for a just cause they believed in.”
Odes to the “Brothers War” was everywhere to be seen.
Every restaurant place mat had a civil war theme and every packet of Dixie Crystal sugar on the table told a Civil War story on the back. In a nod to Dixie, hominy grits migrated above the Mason Dixon lines and were served at every breakfast, “to make our Dixiecrats feel at home since they didn’t receive such a warm welcome last time.”
Even the local bank commissioned a majestic painting of Generals Meade and Lee standing together united, by conviction. They handed out keepsake postcards of the painting and I eagerly grabbed a few.
“General Lee,” the postcards said was not only “universally revered by friend and foe alike” but “also “a symbol of the true spirit of America. Talented, generous devoted to duty…he belongs to all of us.”
Dad who had spent 6 years at school in Charlottesville, VA couldn’t agree more. Lee was a bone fide American hero.
A visit to Fantasyland, an amusement park located on the edge of the battlefield in the shadow of the Soldiers National Cemetery would have to wait for another another time. The park, where you were greeted by a 23 foot tall Mother Goose, complete with magic castles, enchanted forests, man-made lakes, and a chance to have your picture taken with Santa, Red Riding Hood or a real Fairy Princess was the stuff of great make-believe. But I wasn’t disappointed.
The selling of the Civil War was fantasy enough.
Souvenirs notwithstanding, the climax of the three-day battle Centennial celebration was on that Wednesday. On July 3 the 100th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge, that bold attack against the Union Army that was a turning point for the war, was dramatically re-created.
At precisely high noon, the silence of the field of grass and gray boulders was filled with shrieks and smoke as 15,000 uniformed Johnny Rebs charged across the field against the Union forces on Cemetary Ridge. A sound system produced cannon and musket fire and a smoke screen produced smoke. With eyes stinging you felt like you were in the heat of battle.
Unlike in 1863 when the brave charge failed, with ¾ of the attackers killed or wounded, in 1963 the event concluded with Union soldiers greeting Confederates with firm and friendly handshakes. Finally those in gray and those in blue grasped hands, and all boisterously sang The Star Spangled Banner and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Smoke aside, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
It was the perfect ending to an American story.
Noticeably absent in that very white field of grey and blue was the color Black. The Centennial was pretty much an all-white affair. African-Americans avoided the battlefield uninterested in monuments celebrating white supremacy and the Confederacy cause, or in mingling with pasty-faced tourists with their Brownie Hawkeyes, waving souvenir Confederate flags.
If the goal of the Centennial was “keeping peace through understanding” some things were clearly misunderstood.
The Centennial had been planned in the cold war climate of the late 1950’s and the Civil War would be hi-jacked for the current war between democracy and Communism, painting American democracy in the best light. The Commission determined that the Civil War Centennial would be a great opportunity for Americans to “highlight our commitment to freedom and liberty.”
Fifty years earlier at the Jubilee celebration in 1913, the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg was a neatly packaged festival of North South reconciliation that had begun in the late 19th century. The celebration was also a segregated affair in which the only role for African-Americans was distributing blankets to the white veterans of what President Wilson a segregationist called “a quarrel forgotten.”
Now this “Quarrel” would be remembered as simply a family feud, brother against brother, the horrors of slavery long forgotten.
One Nation Under God
In 1960, a year before the centennial, President Eisenhower remarked at the death of the last Civil War soldier: “…the wounds of the deep and bitter dispute which once divided our nation have long since healed and a united America in a divided world now holds up on a larger canvas the cherished traditions of liberty and justice for all.”
The war had been permanently rebranded in national memory as the moment when the US had been reunited and the moral leader of the Free World had been born. The Civil War was one part of American Exceptionalism.
Liberty and Justice For All
Typical of Centennial ads at the time that extolled patriotism, Gettysburg, and the American Way (with a touch o’ tourism thrown in) was this ad from Sinclair Oil in honor of the Gettysburg Centennial:
You can stand and sight along the barrels of 233 Union Guns or 182 Confederate cannons, standing just as they stood on those fateful July days in ’63.
More importantly, you will stand in Gettysburg with eyes closed, and you’re your mind will be touched by the hand of history and your spirit will feel the inspiration that gave Lincoln his finest speech. All Americans North and South can take pride in Gettysburg.
Millions of us have forebears who fought on one side or the other, hotly defending their own idea of liberty. This great battlefield so beautifully preserved by our national Park service is a tribute to the men who fought here.
But America, today united from sea to sea, is their monument.
But the reality was we weren’t all so united.
The Freedom Riders, the sit ins, marches and boycotts told a different story about “defending their own idea of liberty.”
As Americans prepared to celebrate the Civil War, the inconvenient truth was that many of the same passions that divided the nation 100 years earlier divided it still. And still does today. The freedom and equality consecrated by the Civil War still remained elusive.
Even as the civil rights activists in Birmingham made clear that the civil war’s unfinished business was very much in the present, Uncle Sam and planners of the Centennial didn’t want to bring up that pesky problem of slavery into the celebration of the Centennial. How much nicer to embrace the enduring romance, the warm and fuzzy history of a national redemption, brother against brothers war.
It was a good story of democracy in action, important in our anti-communist crusade. The moral of the Civil War story was that only democratic change made social justice possible no matter how gradual.
That pesky problem was a black eye for Uncle Sam as leader of the Free World. The lynchings, violence and racial segregation marred the image of the U.S. and tarnished our moral superiority.
And that pesky problem couldn’t be whitewashed away.
Sweet Home Alabama
The centennial anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg took place in the midst of the tumultuous summer of 1963.
That May, people across the world had been stunned by the images coming out of Birmingham, Alabama: police officers turning high-pressure fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators and ordering dogs to attack children. In June, Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway. That very same month Alabama Governor George “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” Wallace stood defiantly on the steps of the University of Alabama and denied entry to black students seeking an education.
A century after the battle, the issue of racial inequality remained in the foreground and background.
In the shadow of the Civil Rights movement, the idea of commemorating a war that ended slavery being reduced to pageantry and not an occasion to reflect on bigger issues of what was won or lost, was a lost opportunity
The unfinished business of the past that was very much in the present. Ours too.
Copyright (©) 2017 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved